How to Teach and How to Learn: Discovery and Authority in Western Culture

It was hard not to smile watching my friend Dave’s baby girl waddling around the worship center at church on Sunday. Up and down the rows of green cushioned chairs, she picked up pens, lint…whatever she could get her hands on. Cooing as she explored the new universe of New Life Church, her eyes were alive with discovery.

Discovery is a powerful teacher, not only of toddlers, but also of adults in today’s Western culture.

As someone who preaches in a Christian church from time to time, I find it interesting that the approach of many of my peers is significantly different from that of our preaching predecessors 50 or 60 years ago. More “we” language, and less “you” language. More stories, less grammar. More “show,” less “tell.” Preachers and teachers have discovered by experience that discovery is the learning language of our culture.

Teachers using the Montessori learning method know exactly what I’m talking about. The American Montessori Society’s website reads:

For students of every age, the Montessori environment offers the tools to discover the answers to their own questions. The teacher is their trusted ally and the learning materials are their tools for discovery, growth, and development.

Interestingly, this is not too different from the teaching style that the prophet Nathan employed in 2 Samuel chapter 12. The thing is, Nathan had a dilemma. He had to tell a guy that stealing another man’s wife and killing him to cover it up is, to put it lightly, not okay. (No, this is not Law and Order. It is in the Bible.) The problem: the guy he has to face is King David, the most powerful man in the country.

So Nathan tells David this deeply moving story about a rich man with loads of sheep and a poor man with one little lamb. The poor man’s sheep is a much-loved family pet. In Nathan’s words:

He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. (v.3)

When Nathan tells David that the rich man, in preparing a feast for some traveler, took and cooked the poor man’s pet lamb instead of one of his own many sheep, David hardly even waits for the end of the story. With smoke seemingly seeping out of his ears, King David screams, “The man who did this must die!” At that moment, Nathan knows that David has discovered for himself the heinous injustice of abusing power. You can practically hear the thunder crack as Nathan replies, “YOU are the man!”

Nathan’s story is brilliant, and not just because of the allegorical cross-overs. It is brilliant because he knows that simply telling David, “You shouldn’t abuse your power as king by stealing another man’s wife and killing him to cover it up,” won’t suffice. The guy is king after all. Who’s going to tell him what to do? David is not about to accept someone else’s moral authority over him. His abuse of his kingship proves that he is more than willing to use his authority to cover up his wrongdoing, whether by murdering a slighted husband or a cantankerous prophet.

This bottom-up, story based, show-not-tell, inductive style of teaching and preaching is similarly effective in our culture.  It is, arguably, much more effective in persuading than simply telling somebody what’s what. It is more effective because as listeners we are much like King David–not able to stand the thought of somebody simply telling us we are wrong or need instruction. Most of us, deep (or not so deep) down, see ourselves as the kings and queens of our own world. And we will use our perceived self-authority to cover up our wrongdoing through programmatic self-deception and rationalization.

Many of us never grow out of our five year-old motto,”You’re not the boss of me!”

And that is why the “Show” is so important in our culture. We don’t like the “Tell.” We don’t like to be told. But there is a reason it is still “Show and Tell.” Consider Christopher Columbus…

It’s hard to imagine what Chris might have been thinking on August 3, 1492 when he set out on his first voyage to the “New World.” He certainly imagined a new, faster, more adventurous route to the continent of Asia, but history tells us that he never imagined finding the Americas. In fact, he couldn’t even believe that his discovery was not Asian territory long after his voyages were complete.

Discovery, in Chris’ case, wasn’t such a powerful teacher.

He discovered something, alright. Only, he had no idea what it was. When teachers and preachers encourage exploration and discovery through stories and illustrations, yet leave their listeners without a map, all kinds of different conclusions are possible. Like Columbus, what we name our discovery often correlates with what we imagined we would find at the beginning of our voyage…instead of what we have actually found.

That is why Nathan didn’t leave David with the story alone. Otherwise, David was on his way out the door to commission a city-wide kill order on the sheep-stealing rich man. The story was incredibly important, but it could not stand alone.

For Nathan, communication required “Show and Tell.”

For learners: true discovery requires the very arduous task of dethroning ourselves.

For teachers and preachers: give us a map, and show us the way.

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One Response to How to Teach and How to Learn: Discovery and Authority in Western Culture

  1. Rene says:

    profound. True. Helpful. Thank You!

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